Thursday, March 20, 2008

Goodbye Judith, hello Abra

In last night’s dream, I am preparing for some kind of formal dance. I am in the cubicle of a public bathroom, changing into my dress and trying to fix my hair and makeup (…in a 3 x 3 space with no comb, no brush, no mirror…but trying). There is a gaggle of unfamiliar young girls outside, congregating around the sinks. I see their pointy shoes under my door, smell their fruity perfumes and hairsprays, hear their voices through gaps between the cubicle walls. Then one of the girls stands next to my door and speaks directly to me. “We’re making bets,” she says. “We bet you don’t dance with anyone tonight.”

I let out a snort. I am not injured by their juvenile bet and I answer the voice with all the confidence a half-dressed lady in a bathroom cubicle can muster, “That’s where you’re wrong, missy,” I say. “I’m married! I have a built-in dance partner. Besides, I’m a grown woman with four children. What do I care?” The girls are not impressed. They laugh and begin to speak a foreign language—a foreign body language—tossing slinky skirt hems and turning slender ankles and walking out, leaving a cloud of scent and a running sink tap behind them.

I finish dressing and step out into the bathroom. I turn off the water. I look up at the mirror and see myself for the first time in my dream. I am a grown woman with four children. And I have the spotted skin, the forehead creases, and the thick neck to go with it. I am old. I am old. When did I get so old?

I am fairly experienced in armchair self-analysis. I can piece together the various recent events that have influenced my dream, the most important being yesterday's attempts to dress up and photograph myself for a “head shot” requested of me by a journal about to publish one of my essays. The interim results (as seen on the tiny LCD on the back of my camera) looked flattering. The final results (as seen for real on my computer screen) were disappointing and embarrassing. I look desperate, like a post-80s Farrah Fawcett. The truth is dawning on me: after years of looking younger than my age, the pendulum has begun to swing the other way.

Many painters prior to about the 19th century tended to polarize women into two (and only two) categories: young and old. And by young I mean impossibly beautiful, virginal goddesses. By old I mean shriveled nursemaids with one gnarled foot in the grave. There’s no room in between for pleasant, middle-aged maternal types in support hose. There’s no room for mature-but-not-ancient, for wise-but-not-wizened.


Take Caravaggio’s painting of Judith and Holofernes for example.

His Judith (who in the Apocryphal story is an intelligent, resourceful widow) looks about 16 to me. The only creases on her forehead come from her childish expression of squeamishness. She is right in the middle of slicing off the head of an Assyrian general, but to Caravaggio, she is more like a timid teenager, recoiling from the surprising sloppiness of her first kiss.

Judith’s maidservant Abra, on the other hand, is an old hag. She is withered and stooped. Her face has a complex topography. She hangs over Judith’s shoulder like a shrunken apple witch-head. She waits with her apron open to catch the head when Judith finishes her slice. But for some reason, Abra does not help in the process (unlike the Gentileschi version of the same scene I saw in Phoenix last summer). Does Caravaggio think she’s too old and weak? She looks to me as if she has a lifetime of experience behind her, a lifetime of gory unpleasant experiences to have toughened her up: the blood of a thousand cycles, the de-boning of chickens, the childbirths and the cutting of cords, the washing and wrapping of bodies for burial (her parents and maybe a few of her own children). What does Judith know of these things? Nothing. She has only her beauty and naive bravery to commend her. But this is enough for Caravaggio to cast her in the role. So we are not the first generation to lament that all the good parts go to the young actresses.

I am vain. I like being older but I don’t like looking older. Last night's dream is just another of many portents: the failing memory, the wrinkles, the chipped teeth (the teeth! why did no one warn me that my teeth would be the first to show my age?). I can tell the 40s are going to be hard on me. It’s a good thing I have one more year to get used to the idea.

8 comments:

SuburbanCorrespondent said...

I think it is this inbetween time that is hard, when we have to let go of youth and accept aging. We're not allowed to look old yet, but we can no longer look young.

The Lazy Organizer said...

I'm so much younger than you that I have no idea what you're talking about. I still look like Judith. Don't I? I have YEARS before I need to worry about 40. (that would be 4)

Lawanda said...

Oh dear. I thought that was a man behind the girl! What a cool post! (As per usual)

I try not to look into mirrors too often anymore. Aging? Pshaw. There is no use in aggravating my mind over the thing.

tjhirst said...

If I can overlook the older looking hands that are marking the beginnings into middle age, I can envision that there would be room in someone's picture for the "mature-but-not-ancient, for wise-but-not-wizened", at least in the circles of those who are also aging.

mindyluwho said...

I have six children. When I would meet new people and they would find out they would express surprise and usually say I looked about 10 years younger...I don't hear that so much anymore!

I had never heard the story of Judith and Holofernes so I had to google it and have spent a fascinating few minutes learning something new!

stacie (reason enough) said...

This Judith, she is losing her youth in this very instant. You see those furrows between her eyebrows? They will never go away after the gory deed, but only extend and deepen as her memory haunts her, the steep price of experience. Tomorrow she will wake up with liver spots.

I think you should buy some new perfume and get a pedicure as an antidote to those bad dreams. It certainly couldn't hurt. And also, I love you blog.

planetnomad said...

Oh I can so relate! I used to look impossibly young for my age, but the twins changed all that. And they're worth it--but still.
Sigh...I avoid mirrors and joined a gym. You?

My Ice Cream Diary said...

I learned a long time ago that I've enver had a youthful face. That can be hard when I want to wear a youthful hairdo or outift because it just looks odd on me. So I've always had to make up a style just for me. It is a lot of work and something that I've been lax about lately.